The sad irony is that the Hankey set sail from England in 1792 on the noblest of missions.
The ship’s abolitionist passengers hoped to create an inspirational colony on an island off the west coast of Africa where Africans would be employees rather than slaves. “If we succeed, it promises happiness to millions of living and millions of unborn people,” wrote Philip Beaver, a leader of the expedition.
Instead, as Billy G. Smith recounts, the pioneers fueled one of the most devastating plagues in Western history. The colonists toted water to their ship from streams on the African mainland, not knowing that the mosquitoes that bred in the water carried yellow fever.
When the cargo ship sailed off on further ventures, crisscrossing the Atlantic for six months, it brought yellow fever to dozens of ports in the West Indies, North America and Europe. Other ships had carried yellow fever, but not with such lethality: “Until the Hankey’s voyage in 1793, the concatenation of conditions that was to detonate the yellow fever bomb had never been present in so many places at the same time and with such ferocity,” Smith writes. “The result was a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands people.”
The Hankey, infamous in its own time, fell into obscurity within decades. Apparently by chance, Smith, a historian at Montana State University, came across references to the ship in shipping records in Philadelphia, where the epidemic killed one of every 10 residents. He tracked the ship’s voyages, matching them with yellow fever reports, and created a narrative that, the author says, “brings together peoples who lived thousands of miles apart who discovered . . . that far-distant events could have impacts, sometimes fatal, on their own lives.” It’s an apt lesson, he points out, for our ever-shrinking globe.